Riding the Wave of Curiosity & Attraction

Why Western Women obsess over K-Pop Boy Groups

"They are_SO HOT! this video is like porn for me XD. six pack six pack six pack six pack!!!!!!!!!!!!! Jaejoong’s abs strengthening and his blood vessels popping out IN HD... *faints*"

From music to gaming animation to cosmetics, South Korea has created a true global force in the world of popular culture that has rippled outward from East Asia for decades. However, the wake of this popular culture phenomenon began gaining true global strength in the 2000s and 2010s when the Korean Wave finally achieved a notable presence on the shores of major Western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France (Oh, 2013). With the dawn of social networking systems, namely YouTube, and the growing ease of Internet shopping, women in North America and Europe have begun to ride the tide with much enthusiasm. In the twenty-first century, K-pop boy groups have become a major key to the spread of the Korean Wave to the West. But why K-pop of all genres? And more specifically, why have boy groups successfully spread to and caught on among Western women at least in the realm on non-mainstream music?

Ingyu Oh argues that K-pop’s globalization does not owe its success solely to cultural hybridity or the development of “pop Asianism” as other scholars of Hallyu have suggested (2013). Rather, Oh claims “the globalization of K-pop involves a much more complicated process of globalizing-localizing-globalizing musical content that originated from Europe” (2013). Korea’s music industry collects components of existent popular music from other cultures, especially Western popular culture, and transforms it into a wholly new product using a combination of tacit knowledge and creative technique. This innovative cultural product is then distributed globally and thus – using tall and thin, adolescent looking, effeminate men and women for timber – bridges the “structural hole between Western and East Asian music industries” (2013).

Sun Jung’s introduces the concept of “manufactured versatile masculinity” and the idea of sexual hybridization designed to meet consumer demand for “soft masculinity” (2011). Jung uses direct quotes from Internet commentators to demonstrate the initial reactions of K-pop consumers to performances by Korean boy groups. Jung explains the intention behind SM Entertainment’s emphasis on this effeminate masculinity and argues that the rise of the Internet, most significantly sites such as YouTube and Viki, habve allowed this effeminate masculinity to attract women from international audiences outside of East Asia and into the West to K-pop music, particularly boy groups. Jung defines this redefinition of masculinity as “trans-sexuality” and uses SM Entertainment’s boy group TVXQ’s 2008 music video Mirotic to exemplify the theory in action on YouTube and Viki (2011).

David L. Eng implies that gender melancholia is an important factor in why women and people of other historically marginalized gender identities identify with the non-conforming femininity of the men of K-pop. Eng talks about Freud’s theory of melancholia as a pathological condition men experience and woman’s version of melancholia is like a disease that comes on with unresolved grief for the loss of something: the missed opportunity to be a man due to being born a woman or the loss their mothers to marriage and again to death. According to Eng, gendered melancholia is not something that heterosexual men generally experience; rather, women and homosexual men experience this feeling of unresolved grief and loss across the board (2000). Eng argues that gender does not guarantee a person’s psychological state of grief or loss. Women and gender minorities in Western countries in the twenty-first century may not have the same feelings of loss and grief as described by Freud decades ago. Instead, Eng argues that social progress calls for “renewed configurations on the global stage” (2000).

I agree with Oh in that K-Culture has become a success in the West because it takes the already attractive and familiar factors of Western pop culture while simultaneously connecting the West with previously unreachable Asia. Additionally, I believe Jung’s points on K-pop entertainment group leaders’ intentional use of the effeminate heterosexual man support and add to Oh’s claims. However, I believe the instance of Western women’s attraction to K-pop boy groups and their music provides a counter argument to Eng’s assertions that heterosexual men do not feel gender melancholia. I believe that the gender melancholia K-pop boy group members express through counter-masculine acts is another factor that attracts Western women to these idols.

In this post I will explore why K-pop boy groups, a product of Korea’s popular culture wave known as Hallyu, have caught on in the West, particularly among women. Although the initial market penetration required much effort and strategy, once in the West, the successful spread of Korean boy groups among Western women can be owed to curiosity and attraction to both the appearance and acts of Korean male idols.


Western female curiosity can be defined as a desire to learn more about and become part of something novel and unique. Curiosity alone is not enough for something new to become a mainstay, but it does offer an opportunity for the new to get a foot in the door, so to speak. The biggest foot in the door for K-pop was Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video on YouTube, which reached a record high number of views in 2013 (Oh, 2013). Although Psy is not part of a boy group or recognized as a sex symbol, he opened the gates of curiosity for Western Women in particular. Armed with the Internet, YouTube allowed a stream of other K-pop music to play into the ears of those wondering, “what is K-pop?”

With an increasing Western desire to both break the mainstream and simultaneously fit in with society, K-pop fulfills both of those needs. Korean popular music is not a mainstream genre, but it is heavily influenced by Western styles. As Oh explains, “Korea’s place in the global music industry represents a new technique of locating already common and popular musical content in Europe or elsewhere, modifying it into Korean content, and then redistributing it to the global music market” (2013). With the new yet familiar genre, Westerners may find the language barrier less problematic. But it is not simply the beats and melodies that make a genre that sticks among Western women. The producers crafted armies of attractive men who appear young and innocent enough to appeal to younger female audiences while simultaneously giving off sexual overtones with shirtless photos and smoldering faces that appeal to more mature women. Plus, these young men can dance, sing, and rap in perfect synchronization.

Soo-man Lee, Executive Producer of SM Entertainment, combines learned and tacit knowledge after years observing and taking part in the Western and Eastern Asian music industries to create a genre that has succeeded in multiple markets (Oh, 2013). Lee took all of the most captivating parts of the music and performance world and magnified them. He created Michael Jackson dancing on stage times five or ten or twenty, only younger with a dash of rap and a side of cuteness (Oh, 2013). That has translated into peaking and holding onto the innate curiosity of Western women once exposed to the boys of K-pop.


Attraction plays a staring role in the world of K-pop fandom. As previously mentioned, this attraction is a fine balance of innocence and sexiness that has the potential to continue captivating women as they grow out of their middle school knee socks and into their early to mid twenties, as demonstrated at the sold-out SM Town Live Paris and New York concerts in 2011 (Chung, 2011 & Caramanica, 2011). But Western women do not have to squeeze into a packed amphitheater to experience and express the power of attraction to these handcrafted idols; they can do it from the comfort of their own homes.

Jung provides some examples of comments left by fans on the SM boy group TVXQ’s videos posted between 2008 and 2011 to the “sment” channel on YouTube:

"They are_SO HOT! this video is like porn for me XD. six pack six pack six pack six pack!!!!!!!!!!!!! Jaejoong’s abs strengthening and his blood vessels popping out IN HD... *faints*"

"I wish I could pay attention to the song,_ and their faces...but there's so much.....skin.............*nosebleed*"

"OH MY GOD. So sexy!!! and the water makes me want to melt! 2:32 is orgasmic. Their hotness level is over 9000."

"i Love This Steps !! speciaLLy the_ Music !! Dbsk Forever !!! =D Yunho.JaeJae and Changmin !!! are So pretty And Chute .. ^_^ 5 pretty faces!!!"

"This video is sexy . . . Jae’s really pretty [Jaejoong] looks like he has 12 packs on his stomach.. 6 is not enough to count those muscles.. a guy can look so pretty and hot all the same time . . . a guy can look so pretty then look so manly next.. kawaii!"

These comments demonstrate the power of attraction to these boys as masculine figures. However, their masculinity redefines what has previously been considered Western masculinity. K-pop idols, including the members of TVXQ replaced hairy chests with clean-shaven ones, tough expressions with expressions of innocence or even cuteness, and chiseled features with those that are softer and paler. The new image of male attractiveness as defined by K-pop blurs the line between masculinity and femininity with what Jung refers to as “trans-sexuality” (2011).

This concept of trans-sexuality aligns with Judith Butler’s argument about gender acts. Butler contends that gender as explained through Action Theory and the Theory of Acts shows how the understanding of gender can be reconstituted as something totally new (1988). Butler argues that gender identity is an illusion formulated by a society that tells men and women how to act and display themselves to the public. Gender as acts, according to Butler, does not formulate a stable identity (1988). Popular culture is one of the most important arenas for confirming, reforming, or potentially even dissolving gender constitution most obviously through these acts that weakly shape one’s identity. Korean popular culture icons have been able to play with this concept as the men display historically feminine qualities on an increasingly global stage. With makeup, fashion, choreography, and a general persona of innocence, K-pop boy groups break the previously ideal masculine image of attractiveness and replace it with a multidimensional, yet forwardly heterosexual one. It is this heterosexual yet androgynous image developed by Soo-man Lee that makes boy group members seem both relatable and godlike at the same time, keeping fans loyal and hungry for more content.


Bottom Line

While skill, strategy, and the connectivity of the Internet got K-pop boy groups a foothold in the Western market, the spread and growth of fandom for K-pop boy groups among Western women can be owed to curiosity and attraction. This interplay between consumers and producers with teasers, fan fiction, and the like, has become a cycle though which fans and the K-pop industry itself perpetuate the flow of popular Korean music into the West. This cycle is what continues to peak curiosity among new potential. Additionally, this cycle also perpetuates trans-sexual men as an increasingly desirable.

The implications of K-pop music relying on curiosity and attraction to spread are twofold. First, many Western women may not want to stay on board with music that they cannot understand and may go through K-pop music as a short-lived phase. They may become detached once the novelty of curiosity wears off. The second implication is that the attraction to the trans-sexuality of male k-pop idols may lead to cultural clashes with the difference in acceptance of homosexuality and other non-traditional gender identifications between the West and Eastern Asian women.